Empowering innovation

Most often, the term empowering innovation is used as a synonym for disruptive innovation. For good reason, as these terms vividly describe two different views of the very same type of innovation: taking of complex and expensive product or service, and making it simpler and more affordable is the underlying definition that you’ll have seen in the writings of Clayton Christensen. The outcome is appreciated on the customer side as such innovation empowers those customers that previously didn’t have access to that product or service because it used to be prohibitively expensive. However, on the supplier side, this is dreadful, as it disrupts the business model of the former market incumbents and seriously challenges their market position. That’s the well-known background to what I’d like to address today.

For if we look a bit deeper, we’ll find a second meaning of empowering innovation: transforming the process of innovation, making it more influential, effective, and farther reaching. You might say that this is a question of increasing society’s innovation capacity. I’m curious about the drivers that can push our capacity to innovate. What are the key trends? How have they evolved in the past? And where might they take us in the future?

In a recent post in innovation risk, I came across the concept of decentralisation, which is sometimes used as a synonym for democratisation or empowerment. Today I’d like to start elaborating that idea a bit further. Where and how does this concept influence innovation today and into the future? How does it effect our innovation capacity and our thinking about innovation?

Of course there’s a variety of approaches to tackle this topic. The first that comes to my mind is through the lens of systems theory, which is an efficient tool to describe most of our technological environment. Systems theory knows three flows that are essential for the functioning of any system: the flow of information, of energy, and of matter. Looking for decentralisation trends through this lens, you can easily see the internet (information), smart grids (energy) or the makers movement (matter).

Alternatively, we could view the concept of decentralisation through the lens of institutions: on the economic side, we’ll find crowd funding as a recent development; and on the political side, there’s our well-established democracy.

Finally, there are facets of science and technology as well. Just think of citizen science or of prosumers.

Each of these lenses can be helpful to come to terms with the concept of decentralisation and the evolving trends: What can we learn about accelerating innovation, more efficient use of resources, or reducing innovation risk? And we shouldn’t be surprised to find that many of these lenses interact to mutually reinforce each other.

For all those facets and lenses to decentralisation, I’ll seek to look back into historic times to identify the key driers before I get to their influence of our future: How could these trends reshape the innovation landscape, either as demand for innovation or as novel ways of supplying novel ideas? Do these trends redefine or rebalance the roles of innovation protagonists? And this can only be a set of initial questions; I’m sure there are a lot more waiting for me down that path.

That’s the beginning of a sequence of posts on the concept of decentralisation. Next stop: decentralisation of information.


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